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The visionary VC


Sir Albert Sloman, founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex, died in July 2013. At his memorial service in September, Professor Anthony King talked about the man and his achievements.

Essex is a world-class University. It is one of the very best - if not the best - of the new universities that were founded during the great era of expansion during the1960s.

It is a genuine community. People care about the place. It is also a university that, unlike some, takes teaching very seriously and is very good at it. Students are the first to acknowledge the fact. Members of the academic staff do research and publish the results of their research. They work hard, and they think. Now for more than a quarter of a century, Essex has been assessed by panels of outside experts as one of the finest research-intensive universities in the UK.

And all of that - I repeat all of it - is down to Albert Sloman. Of course, his successors as Vice-Chancellor have built on the foundations he laid; but he laid them.

Albert Sloman had a vision. He aimed to establish a university that would be international in outlook, not merely in the sense of recruiting students from other countries, but in the sense of studying other countries and having an academic staff who came from anywhere and everywhere. This was to be more than a purely English university.

It was also to be a university that took graduate education seriously. Unlike at Oxford, for example, its focus was not to be almost exclusively on teaching undergraduates. And taking graduate education seriously meant, among other things, having large departments staffed by specialists, people who were not jacks of all academic trades.

He wanted to create a new university that was about as unlike Oxford and Cambridge as could be imagined. It was to resemble far more closely a university in the United States where he had taught: the great University of California at Berkeley. He wanted it to be, above all, a tough-minded professional university, more renowned for its research than for its high tables, partying or punting on the river.

His vision was embodied in what he said; but also in what he did. And one absolutely crucial thing he did was to focus on bringing to Essex top-quality academic staff: adventurers of the mind, if you like - not safe pairs of hands but ever so slightly dangerous pairs of hands.

The University began with only two departments: Literature and Government. In the case of Government, Albert trawled for people who might be the department's founding professor among the then establishment of the political-science profession. He didn't like what he heard: the people they all recommended sounded conventional, safe, dull. So he cast his net more widely and identified as the sort of person he wanted to hire a little-known Frenchman lecturing at Keele: Jean Blondel. It was a distinctly unsafe appointment, but a brilliant one - and, like most of Albert's early appointments, it worked out brilliantly.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were hard. Students worldwide went berserk - and Essex had a peculiarly hard time. But, although at times he felt desperately isolated and beleaguered, he stuck to it. He never gave up.

And his determination paid off, fortunately while he was still in post as Vice-Chancellor. In May 1986, the results of the first-ever UK- wide Research Assessment Exercise were published, and the whole world discovered the truth about Essex: that, in the words of the Times Higher Education Supplement, Essex was "probably the most academically distinguished university in Britain for its size". Of our 15 departments, no fewer than six were "outstanding by international standards." I went to see Albert in his office that day to congratulate him. He was absolutely delighted. He had been vindicated - authoritatively and in the most public possible way. I had never seen him so chuffed. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that those REF ratings gave him even more pleasure than his knighthood, which came the following year.

The last time I saw Albert - by way of business - was at a meeting to appoint a new Senior Lecturer in 1987, just before he retired. For some mundane reason, the selection committee could not reach a decision that day and it was proving difficult to find another date that Albert could manage. "Come on Albert," I remember saying, "It's not going to be a difficult decision. You don't need to be there." He paused and then said, quite shyly, "In all the years I've been here, I've never missed a senior appointment meeting, and I'm determined not to miss this one." We found another date. He took appointing top-quality academic staff that seriously.

Essex is world-class, and it owes its success to the imagination and determination of one man: Albert Sloman.

Albert Sloman meeting the first students 1964

Albert Sloman meeting the first students 1964

Reproduced from "Essex Effect", Issue 4, 2013 p14

Listen to The Fulfilment of Lives - from his 1963 Reith Lecture series

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